By the end of the 3rd century, there were over 20 gospels, numerous letters and other writings, totalling nearly eighty documents. Most of these are lost to us today.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the church did suppress a number of these texts. But they had been condemned from as early as the 2nd century. Like many ancient texts, it is possible that they would have fallen into disuse and obscurity even without external intervention. Case in point: we have relatively few manuscripts of the writings of the church fathers, documents considered orthodox by the early church.
In choosing the appropriate texts, authorship was the most important factor. Earlier dating was important, as older documents had greater circulation and recognition. The Shepherd of Hermas, for example, was excluded because it was too recent and had been written by the brother of a bishop. Documents connected to Rome were chosen over those written elsewhere and for this reason the Gospel of Thomas, popular in Egypt, lost out.
Iranaeus of Lyon, writing at the end of the 2nd century gives us the criteria for placing a text within the canon. First was apostolicity: The document had to have been authored by an apostle or by someone within the apostolic circle, such as Mark (companion of Peter’s) and Luke (companion of Paul’s). Apostolicity carried with it two corollaries: antiquity and orthodoxy. Antiquity meant that the text had been written in the 1st century, within the lifetime of the apostles. Orthodoxy meant that it conformed to the teaching of the church which the apostles taught. A final criterion was catholicity: the document had to be widely accepted by all churches everywhere.
The Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache and the Letter of Clement passed the orthodoxy and catholicity tests and were recommended for personal devotions but not public reading, for they weren’t apostolic. Tatian’s Diatessaron, a blending of the four canonical gospels, was rejected on the same grounds.
As regards the location of writing, a number of Paul’s letters were written in Asia Minor to churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Revelation was written on Patmos. Thomas was excluded for reasons not geographical.
By excluding the Ebionites, Marcion, the Gnostics, etc, Christianity guaranteed itself a wider appeal. The Ebionites were too Jewish (to the exclusion of everybody else), the Marcionites had no roots in antiquity and the Gnostics were elitist.
[Christianity was never meant to be exclusive and/or elitist. The early church understood that.]
The winners write history, and the losers drift into obscurity. That’s why these texts, once popular, are no longer available to us.
Sometimes, the winners deserve to win. This was one of those times. [Can’t we get a better answer?]
Had the early church allowed the controversial texts to flourish, it would have come across as less authoritarian. The Christian message would have been more diverse and more popular. Ironically, had it done so, the church might not have survived at all.
There is a pushback today to rehabilitate these lost gospels, aimed at softening the exclusive claims of Christianity. In them we have a Jesus who was a moral teacher, but didn’t suffer and die—this is more appealing to our diverse and tolerant society.
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